Jury selection begins in Jackson case

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SANTA MARIA, Calif. (AP) – Michael Jackson faced prospective jurors in his child-molestation trial Monday after being greeted by a crowd of fans shouting encouragement and pressing against fences to see the pop star.

Jackson waved to supporters as he walked into the courthouse. After more than an hour’s wait, Jackson and his attorney stood and faced the first group of prospective jurors filing into the courtroom.

Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville told the prospective panelists they might have to serve for about six months, but that it was an important duty.

“Most of us have relatives who have fought and died to protect this service,” he said. “Freedom is not free. Jury duty is part of the cost of freedom.”

About 300 prospective jurors were to be screened for hardship and fill out questionnaires Monday.

Another 300 were to be processed Tuesday, followed by 150 more on Wednesday. From that pool, the judge hopes to find 12 jurors and eight alternates, but the process could take a month or more.

When Melville asked the first group how many would not seek to be removed from the case, at least half raised their hands.

He then began questioning prospects who were seeking deferrals of jury service.

Outside the courthouse earlier, fans danced and sang a Jackson song deriding the district attorney and booed a woman who held a sign backing the alleged victim, a 13-year-old boy. Many had spent the night outside the little courthouse.

Jackson, 46, is charged with molesting a cancer patient – then age 13, now 15 – and plying him with alcohol.

On Sunday, Jackson issued a court-approved video statement on his Web site, predicting he would be acquitted.

“Please keep an open mind and let me have my day in court,” Jackson said, looking directly into the camera. “I deserve a fair trial like every other American citizen. I will be acquitted and vindicated when the truth is told.”

His parents also spoke out in his defense Monday before the trial got under way, saying the pop star’s young accuser was simply after his money.

“I know my son, and this is ridiculous,” his mother, Katherine Jackson, said in an interview broadcast on CBS’ “The Early Show.” She said people who believe her son is guilty “don’t know him.”

Jackson’s father, Joe Jackson, said his son was beloved around the world but had trouble in the United States because of racism. He said the accuser’s motives were clear: “It’s about money.”

Jackson is being prosecuted by Santa Barbara County District Attorney Tom Sneddon, 61, whom Jackson has derided in song as a “cold man” with a vendetta.

A child-molestation case Sneddon tried to build against Jackson 10 years ago fell apart when the singer’s accuser reportedly accepted a multimillion-dollar civil settlement and refused to testify in any criminal case.

The challenge facing the court is not to find jurors ignorant of the case but to find those who say they can put aside everything they have heard and look at the evidence as if they had heard nothing.

The referee is Melville, 63, a veteran of the bench who has refused to tolerate tardiness or even, in one case, a bathroom break for the defendant. At the final pretrial hearing Friday, Melville made it clear that he won’t abide lawyers attacking each other and that the gag order stands.

Earlier this month, the 1,900-page transcript of the case prosecutors presented to the grand jury that indicted Jackson was leaked to thesmokinggun.com and ABC News.

The transcript included the accuser’s testimony that Jackson closed his eyes tightly while molesting him on a bed, and that the pop star ignored the child’s warnings that he shouldn’t drink alcohol because of his medical condition.

More than 1,000 applications for media access have been submitted, some of them from as far away as Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Germany, Canada and Mexico.

Jackson spokeswoman Raymone K. Bain said Monday that the pop star’s “spirits are great,” and shot down rumors that he had been suicidal.

“He has the support of his family, his children, his friends,” she said. “You’re going to see a Michael Jackson who is going to be here today who is very serious _ very businesslike and very serious.”